AS part of the year-long celebration of Ella Fitzgerald's 75th birthday, her record company, Verve, has released a deluxe boxed set of 16 compact discs of her original recordings. Titled simply, ``The Complete Ella Fitzgerald Song Books,'' these recordings trace Miss Fitzgerald's journey from a standout jazz singer to the First Lady of Song. They also bring recognition to the American popular song as an art form.
No popular singer has matched Fitzgerald's achievement on the eight songbooks recorded between 1956 and 1964 - a collection of some 240 tunes by Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, and Johnny Mercer. The Verve set contains 254 tracks, 14 previously unreleased, with more than 15 hours of music.
Inside the cloth-covered red box, the songbooks have been faithfully reproduced right down to the original LP jackets, liner notes, and artwork (including lithographs by French artist Bernard Buffet accompanying the Gershwin set). The liner notes offer a treasure trove of anecdotes. The only quibble is that in reducing the material to CD-format, you need a magnifying glass to read the fine print.
There is also a 120-page hardcover book with full discographical information, an appreciation and history of the songbooks, and interviews with their producer, Norman Granz, and some of the arrangers.
Only a singer of Fitzgerald's mastery could have tackled such an immense project. Her wide vocal range, crystal-clear diction, perfect phrasing and instinct for rhythm and swing make many of her performances near-definitive.
FITZGERALD had been recording for Decca for slightly more than 20 years before Granz brought her to his Verve label in 1956. Her Decca recordings included some gems, but often she had to bow to commercial considerations and battle weak material and orchestrations.
For the songbooks, Fitzgerald not only got to sing the greatest songs by America's most popular composers, but Granz surrounded her with top-rate arrangers and instrumentalists. These recordings jump-started her career when she was in her 40s, taking her from a narrow jazz audience to popular acclaim.
Each of the songbooks, which ranged from one to five LPs, has a distinct personality, starting with the first, ``The Cole Porter Song Book'' from 1956.
But ``The George and Ira Gershwin Song Book'' is the masterpiece of the collection. Granz recruited Nelson Riddle to do the arrangements - and without being obtrusive, he consistently finds the right orchestral colors to accent Fitzgerald.
Nearly all the familiar Gershwin tunes are here, with the exception of those from ``Porgy and Bess,'' which Fitzgerald recorded on another Verve album with Louis Armstrong. But she is in top form on such classics as ``But Not for Me,'' ``Oh, Lady Be Good,'' ``They Can't Take That Away From Me,'' and ``I Got Rhythm.''
The boxed set is worth the list price of $250, but that might be too much for some people's pockets. Fortunately, most of the songbooks are available individually on CD - in which case, the Gershwin is most recommended, followed by the Ellington if you want more jazz. Verve has also released a 16-track CD, ``The Best Of The Song Books,'' offering a representative sampling.